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“Voices for action against racism” – advocating for ethnic diversity in law

March is not just a month to celebrate women for International Women’s Day (8 March), but also International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March), the theme of which for 2022 is ‘voices for action against racism’.

Starting in 1979, the UN’s General Assembly decided that “a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on 21 March, would be organised annually in all States”, and while racist laws and practices have long been dismantled, in theory at least, there is still much work to be done.

This year’s theme ‘voices for action against racism’ goes hand in hand with the IWD theme of #BreaktheBias. Whether deliberate or unconscious, bias (of any kind) makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Knowing that bias exists isn’t enough, action is needed to level the playing field.

Ethnic diversity in the legal profession – dissecting the data

Encouragingly, a new survey for 2022 by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) ​​shows that there has been a “slow but steady increase in diversity” across the UK legal profession as a whole since 2019, with 17% of all lawyers in law firms from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background (compared to a 13% Black, Asian and minority ethnic workforce across England, Scotland and Wales). Yet, we are still far from seeing balanced representation across the judiciary, business leadership and profession as a whole. The survey broke down data by diversity groups, looking at each across firm size and work type for example, but did not address any intersectionality aspect of discrimination.

In our 2021 Women Who Will report we looked more closely at diversity statistics for women across the UK legal profession and found that while women, regardless of background, make up 22% of the Top UK Law Firms most senior leadership positions, that figure reduces to an average 2% where the position is a woman from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background. At the bar, 18% of Queen’s Counsel are women, but just 10% are women from a BAME background. In the judiciary, 29% of the Court of Appeal and High Court judges are women, but only 4% are from a BAME background. It is clear that much work is still to be done and that women of colour face a particular bias within the legal profession.

Ethnic diversity in the legal profession – a widening gap

Interestingly, both the SRA and the Law Society have identified that the diversity profile gap continues to widen. New practising certificates are given out to more women than men, but the largest firms have the smallest proportion of partners from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic group, with the most senior person from a BAME background more than four times greater in one-partner firms. The Law Society also noted that fewer newly qualified solicitors enter their ethnic background and that better ways of collecting data need to be addressed for ongoing monitoring.

In recognition of International Women’s Day and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination we are choosing to celebrate women lawyers who are making a difference, standing up as role models, and championing ethnic diversity across all parts of the legal profession.

I. Stephanie Boyce

As well as being the first Black President of the Law Society UK, I. Stephanie Boyce is also only the second In-House lawyer to hold the role, practising in corporate governance, regulatory frameworks and professional regulation. Named on the Power List 100 of the Most Influential Black People in the UK in 2021, in March 2022 she was named joint recipient of the Inspirational Role Model award at the Burberry British Diversity Awards.

In her plan for her year ahead as President she noted “we still need to do more to challenge the stereotypes of what a solicitor should sound like, look like or where they should come from. Black, Asian and ethnic minority solicitors continue to experience barriers within the profession. Having achieved greater diversity at entry level, we must address the retention and progression gaps mid-career”.

Millicent Grant QC (Hon)

A Chartered Legal Executive for over thirty years, Millicent was awarded UK Diversity Legal Awards of ‘Black Solicitors Network Lawyer of the Year’ in 2017 and became the first Chartered Legal Executive to be appointed an Honorary Queen’s Counsel in 2020. As President of CILEx in 2017, she became the first person from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background to lead a legal professional membership body and has worked to tackle diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and the judiciary.

In an interview with Leducate, The Legal Education Charity, in 2021, Millicent commented that legal executives are “often overlooked, but are a significant and valuable sector of the legal profession”, noting that increasing awareness of other routes into the profession may help with increasing diversity as “qualifying as a CILEx Lawyer gives access to the legal profession regardless of a person’s social background and circumstances”.

Speaking to Millicent explains why the “law is for the many, not the few”:  

“As a Black woman I know only too well how difficult it can be to make it in the legal profession. I am testament to what can be achieved but unfortunately, I remain in the minority. There are too few lawyers who look like me and wider still, too few lawyers who look like the population they serve; that must change.”

Millicent Grant QC

Grace Ononiwu CBE

Grace Ononiwu is Director of Legal Services at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), becoming the first Afro Caribbean person to hold the post of Chief Crown Prosecutor in the history of the CPS, as well as the first woman to hold the position in Northamptonshire County, the East of England and West Midlands regions. She was also Chair of the National Black Crown Prosecution Association (NBCPA) and included in the 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 Power List 100 of the Most Influential Black People in the UK.

Launching a diversity scheme called The Anthony Walker Pathways Initiative in Liverpool in November 2021, which aims to continue to increase diversity in the CPS by inspiring and supporting students of minority backgrounds, Grace said “You do not have to be white and wealthy to become a lawyer. The CPS and the wider Criminal Justice System need people of all backgrounds to have access to a career in law so that it is truly representative of the people we seek to achieve justice for.”

Dame Linde Dobbs, OBE

Linda Dobbs is a retired High Court judge in England and Wales who in 2004 became the first person of colour to be appointed a high court judge in the UK. Born in Sierra Leone, she attended school and university in the UK before being called to the bar in 1981. In 2003, Dame Linda Dobbs became the Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association where she set up its first Equality and Diversity sub-committee. Since retiring, she has been focusing on training lawyers and judges internationally, as well as acting for several charities, including patron of the International Law Book Facility, which support the rule of law and access to justice across the world through providing second hand legal books.

In an interview with Chambers Student in 2019, she said, “If you lump the whole of the judiciary together, the figures don’t look so bad because the tribunals’ judiciary is far more diverse than the courts’. It’s not as if there aren’t senior BAME lawyers out there to form a pool for the senior judiciary – there are. But not a lot of them are attracted to the idea of the senior Bench, and there are lots of varying and complicated reasons for that.”

Grace Brown

Grace Brown was called to the bar in 1995 and is a public law barrister at Garden Court Chambers where she has a particular focus on human rights, immigration and refugee law. Grace acted in the first post-scandal Windrush court case, which is now a precedent, and in 2021 was awarded the 2021 BSN Lawyer of the Year, in the Chambers category, at the UK Diversity Legal Awards.

She was described by the UK Diversity Legal Awards as “an extraordinary advocate who has made significant contributions to the advancement of diverse lawyers through raising awareness, through her dedication to advocating for marginalised groups and through sheer persistence”.

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